Should I Drive a Motorbike in Asia?
If you have ever traveled anywhere throughout South East Asia, you will undoubtedly be faced with an important decision. “Should I drive a motorbike” you’ll find yourself thinking. With literally thousands of bikes whizzing past you every minute, they are easily the number one mode of transportation throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. Should you find yourself in one of these countries for more than a couple days, you will soon realize that Tuk Tuk’s and taxis can get expensive quick, especially if you are in a super touristic area such as Phuket, Thailand where a taxi ride to the bus station will cost as much as a bus ticket from Phuket to Bangkok, 12 hours north.
When Marina and I moved to Thailand, we naively thought we would settle an area where everything was walking distance. We would walk to the markets, the beach, friends houses, etc and have no need for a motorbike, let alone a car. It took us about 24 hours to realize that no matter where we moved, transportation would be an absolute necessity and so within three days of moving to Phuket we had rented our first motorbike. Driving the bike took a little getting used to, I’ll admit it. The first day we pulled out of our little street and onto the main road I immediately steered us into oncoming traffic, whom thank goodness was quick to alert us to that fact. Please note: In Thailand, they drive on the left. While it took Marina a few weeks to get comfortable riding behind me on the bike she adjusted fairly quickly and admits when we are stuck in traffic with bikes and cars flying passed us, she just holds on an closes her eyes. I don’t blame her.
“We have literally seen bikes hit each other at high speeds right in front of us that end with children landing 10 feet away on the pavement…”
Let’s get down to the pros and cons of driving a motorbike. First off, riding a motorbike is just plain fun. It is so much easier than driving a car, in my opinion, and way more fun. Being able to smell the ocean, the delicious food and to feel the breeze on your face has its advantages, and you can’t help but feel like you are at least attempting to fit in. Con? It can be extremely dangerous. There is not a week that goes by we do not see an accident happen right in front of us, or pass by the aftermath of one and cross our fingers everyone is ok. We have literally seen bikes hit each other at high speeds right in front of us that end with children landing 10 feet away on the pavement wearing no helmets. In Thailand, a lot of the locals believe that a spirit will protect them while on their bikes, and few ever wear helmets. You would think with the astonishingly high accident rate, they would decide to, but alas they usually just hang them on the helmet clip between their legs and throw it on if they pass a police check point.
TIP: Remember that even if you have an international drivers license, unless specifically for motorcycles, it will not cover you if you get in an accident on a motorbike. Also, no matter the circumstance, whether you have the international drivers license or not, if you get in an accident, especially if the other party is a local, you will almost always be the person at fault, no matter the circumstance.
That brings us to another issue. Police check points are very prevalent, especially in tourist areas. In Thailand there is no law against a foreigner renting a motorbike, and often all you have to do is let them photocopy your passport before you will be given motorbike. No lesson required, no proof you have ever as much as ridden a bicycle before. However, there IS a law that anyone riding a motorbike must have an international of Thai drivers license. Go figure. Of course, you will never be told this while renting a bike. Many of the checkpoints are unofficial, and therefor the “fines” are really just bribes, collected by whoever decides to set up a check point that day. The fine, whether legal or illegal, is usually about 500B. I suppose you could also have to pay the fine if driving a car without a license.
TIP: When renting a bike, always make sure to test drive the bike first. Many of the bikes are a 1,000 years old and, although you couldn’t murder them if you tried, run less than perfectly. Some will backfire constantly while driving and some have faulty starters which will leave you kickstarting the bike over and over whenever you need to start it, which is no fun.
The cost associated with renting a bike is a huge, huge plus. Usually for about 200baht a day, you can get a 125cc little motorbike, which is plenty of power to haul around two full grown Americans, meaning it can handle anything. The cost of renting a car for a day is about 1,000 baht and about 500 baht to fill with gas. We struggle to fit 100 baht of gas into our little bike and a tank usually lasts us about a week, depending on how much driving we do.
TIP: All gas stations close at 9pm in Thailand, so make sure you are all filled up if you have to drive long distances at night. There are little gas stands everywhere in SE Asia who sell fuel, but it is often “gasohol”, which barely lifts your gas gauge, even if your tank is filled all the way up.
Personally I would never want to even attempt to drive a car in SE Asia. The motorbikes are so aggressive, run most red lights, swerve in and out of lanes of traffic, that I would be in a constant state of panic driving a car. That being said, I have never tried to. Driving the bike actually makes me feel more safe. While I am way more exposed, and often wear flip flops, shorts and a tank top (I ALWAYS wear a helmet), being on the bike gives me the ability to get out of the way quicker and have more control over where I am going on the busy roads. (Also, passing 100 cars stopped at a red light is an awesome feeling). We do, however, have friends in Phuket who will never touch a bike, and I can’t blame them one bit. Sure, the car costs way more to rent each month, but at the end of the day you are dealing with your personal safety and comfort zone, so money shouldn’t be a factor at all.
TIP: Always bring glasses with you if you are driving a motorbike! I don’t wear prescription glasses and have sometimes left my sunglasses at home if going out in the evening. But when it starts to pour rain and you cannot see five feet in front of you or you get hit right in the eye ball with a huge flying moth, you’ll wish you had some glasses. If need be, stop by the local market and buy a cheap pair of zero prescription glasses, that way you can look like a real cool hipster AND protect your eyes and see where you are going, even if the sun it not out. And remember how slick the roads get! Especially just after it starts raining, which is almost daily six months of the year in SE Asia, the roads get exceptionally slippery and most accidents happen then.
In the end I would suggest jumping on the back of a bike and seeing how it feels. We even fit three of us on our little bike for an entire month when my sister was visiting, and while this made the driving a bit more challenging, I would way rather be in control of all of us on one bike, than having Marina and my sister nervously driving themselves on bikes behind me on the road. Chances are you won’t die or end up in the hospital but you have to know the risks you are taking, and constantly be aware of your surroundings on the bike. Even if you have absolutely mastered driving around on a bike you will never be able to predict the less than perfect road conditions and erratic drivers you will undoubtedly encounter on the road.
No matter where you find yourself, there will be various options for transportation ranging from chicken buses to posh personal drivers. Most cities have cheap publish transportation, good tuk tuks and fairly priced taxis, but no matter where you are will be able to easily, quickly and cheaply jump on a motorbike if you so choose.
So whatever you decide, have fun, be safe and enjoy yourself!
Jeff Johns is the co-founder and editor of Latitude 34 Travel Blog. Through 65 countries on 6 continents he has accumulated a seemingly endless stream of odd information, interesting stories and helpful tips and tricks to better travel. Jeff’s goal is to visit all 204 countries on Earth before he is too senile to forget them all.
A graduate of the Visual Journalism program at the Brooks Institute, his true passions lay in honest visual storytelling, documentary filmmaking, Thai food and a good laugh.
Together with his girlfriend Marina, they run Latitude 34 Travel Blog as a source of helpful information for those who love to travel or those who simply dream of it. If you have a comment or suggestion, send them an email at email@example.com and they’ll respond super fast!